By Christopher Cudworth
The Sirius XM Classic Rock channel blaring through my speakers last night featured a song by the Allman Brothers titled “Whipping Post.” That song is technically about the songwriter’s mistreatment by a woman who is unfaithful to the point of emotional pain. He draws the comparison between repeated “whippings” by his gal to being flogged by a whip.
That metaphorical use of a whipping post surely grabs one attention. The idea of being tied up and beaten bloody is not an appetizing thought. In fact the Starz cable series The Outlander recently featured a scene in which a Scottish rebel is beaten bloody to the point of flesh flying away from his back. The beating is administered by a sadistic British officer trying to exact punishment and extract confession of disloyalty to the English king.
It doesn’t work. The Scottish lad refuses to emit a cry even when his back is lacerated to strips and flaps of flesh hanging from his back.
In a telling moment during the episode a British officer responsible for the brutal whipping admits that he lost control both in the moment and in his overall life. His resent for being sent to Scotland––where he considers the people “savages”––give hims a sense of jjustification for administering punishment to whomever he pleases. He also admits it pleases him to do so. “He was my masterpiece,” the officer said of his flaying brutality.
The same sort of angry isolation from reality takes over another character in the HBO Series “Rome,” in which Emperor Octavius clenches the hand of his servant, soon to be bride. As she winces in pain, he coos to her that he enjoys giving others pain. “It gives me sexual pleasure,” he murmurs. She marries the man anyway. His power is too attractive to ignore.
Example of Christ
In the bible we encounter a man who refuses to give in to flogging and crucifixion. Even knowing that he faced likely torture, humiliation and death, the man we know as Jesus held his tongue except to affirm that his mission was pure.
These extremes in punishment turn our stomachs and at times force us to turn our eyes. Yet for purposes of edification the next movie I plan to watch is “12 Years a Slave.” The plot deals with slavery, injustice and freedom. But the violence will surely illustrate the extremes to which people seeking to force and control the behavior of others will go.
All these elements of punishment, pain and abuse seem to be coming together in the public eye of late. The video of the NFL playing knocking his companion unconscious with a blow of the fist has set off debate about domestic violence. Then another football player was called to account for whipping his child with a switch to the point where the bruise marks were visibly evident on the child’s skin.
I have been that child. My mother used to use a switch on us for discipline. She used a brush as well when the switch was not handy. I’m pretty sure she did not enjoy whipping us kids for being bad. She was trying to keep unruly kids in line. That was the philosophy in those days.
But I’m not so sure about the teachers at our public school who used paddles to spank kids who were deemed to be misbehaving. I had my pants dropped in the hallway and was spanked on my bare buttocks by a first grade teacher. That scared the hell out of me, but it did not really teach me what I’d done wrong, or how. That was left for me to figure out on my own. All I knew at the time was that I’d crossed some line and that she owned all the authority.
Authority played a big role in those days. You were taught to mind authority no matter what. My father did not like being questioned or ignored, especially when it came to matters of authority. He punished us physically, but not always for reasons that were discernible.
I watched him thrash my two brothers in the kitchen of our house. The beating reduced me to painful tears because I loved my brothers. That instance set up an emotional foundation that could not be easily erased. The following week at school when my best friend got paddled for something he did on the playground, I collapsed in tears while clinging to my first grade teacher’s side. She questioned me at that moment why I was so upset about my friend being hit. She sensed there was something more going on. But that did not mean there was any reconciliation.
The trauma of those beatings turned me into a fighter. I fought my way through sixth grade in fact. Fought my way through a line of adversaries all the way to the neighborhood bully who finally challenged me to a fight to be held in the deep end of the country club pool which whose water was emptied for the winter.
An older friend heard me bragging about the upcoming fight and told me that he was going to go in his place. He met up with the bully who pulled a knife and threatened to stab my friend. Fortunately he knocked the knife from his hand and proceeded to pummel the kid’s face until blood stained the entire front of my friend’s shirt.
When he came back from the fight he grabbed me by the collar and told me, “No more fighting for you.” And with one or two exceptions, after that I was cured of the need to fight.
I funneled my deep-seated anger into sports instead. The rage served me well in competitive situations. But deep down there was a conflicting emotional base that was fragile and fearful. There was no real self confidence or (God Forbid) self esteem behind the bravado and aggression.
Coaches loved to tap that aggression and on many occasions it would work in the short term. But real success comes from confidence built on hard work and affirmation. It’s possible to guide and correct behavior without beating it into someone. One can even tolerate pain and suffering in the name of a cause without having your teeth kicked in to make you want to give your all.
The insane levels to which some coaches, leaders and parents feel they need to go to motivate their charges is evidenced by this quick anecdote told to me in person by former pro football player and Ohio Buckeye Doug Plank. “I followed Jack Lambert at Ohio State and he was one of the hardest hitting players ever to go through that system. I was middle linebacker too, and one day I hit a guy so hard it knocked me unconscious. I was lying there and when I woke up Coach Woody Hayes had his face right in mine, and he screamed, ‘YOU SHOULD HAVE HIT HIM HARDER!”
That kind of punishment is what the NFLis essentially based upon as a tradition. Hundreds of players suffer debilitating lifelong illnesses and conditions due to their time on the field. Some suffered multiple or untreated concussions. In some cases like David Duerson and Junior Seau, the brain injuries have led to mental illness and ultimate suicide.
Who can forget the very public disgracing of the NFL player indicted for the cruel hobby of dog fighting? His career was rehabilitated in the eyes of many. To others he remains the symbol or everything that is wrong with pro sports. The power of money and performance forgives all.
The NFL has admitted at some level there is a cost to playing pro football. The league gave up millions in a settlement to its former players. It was an admission that the physical and mental punishment of competing at that level with giants on the field and human beings inside those highly trained bodies is a formula for destruction.
Yet the paying public continues to eat it up. There’s all that weekly excitement over “big hits” and taking out the quarterback. At times even the ugly injuries that stem from pro sports are played in endless loops. Broken legs make good copy.
It’s really not much different that the crowd at a public event like gladiatorial contests or the public whipping of a criminal. People with a lust for violence and action will get it vicariously if they can’t mete is out on their own. Never mind that the very lives of many NFL players are being destroyed by a violent sport, and that kids all the way down to five years old are at risk of those same injuries. It’s copycat violence. “Go make us proud, son. Knock him on his ass.”
Of course all sports have an element of risk. But when the issue of that risk is not only ignored but obscured in the name of power, money and entertainment, there is a risk to all of society absorbing that violence.
The fact that we also look to pro athletes as role models doubles that gamble. Their personal failures represent a downward swirling whirlpool of perception for society. It’s depressing when our heroes fail. Yet we discard them and move on to someone else for our heroics. We spank them publicly and expect them to behave again. When they don’t, they are disowned. Banished from our thoughts. They’re really products of an entire system that squeezes athletes for their talents while essentially failing them as human beings.
Consider the perversion of pro sports as a meat market. The idea that athletes can be ‘traded’ or ‘sold’ is essentially demeaning. They are commodities, and little more. This dehumanizing aspect of professional sports is only counteracted by the fact that so many pro athletes experience the same flaws as the rest of us.
This includes beating their kids, making dogs fight each other and abusing their wives. Welcome to America, fellas. That’s how we’ve always done it. Your lives are just a little more public. So we must face the fact that the very acts of violence, crime and abuse committed by pro athletes are simply responses to the lack of perspective that life offers them.
Need for change
So where is the potential for change going to come from? Certainly not the NFL, which Yet perceives itself as a tornado sweeping away all other sports in its path. The aggressive marketing of pro football now takes place 12 months a year. The league acts like a spoiled child, always demanding attention.
And therein lies both the irony and the solution of all this public whipping and whether it’s right or wrong to spoil the child. It’s as if we’re all tied to the whipping post and the NFL is doing the whipping. We’re actually afraid to pull back or cry out for fear of being the one called too weak to survive the competition of life, or worse, to be branded “un-American” for not loving “America’s Game.” Why else would there be such an anti-soccer backlash, which calls itself the “world’s game” if those who jingoistically brand American football as the better sport?
Those dealing out the punishment simply refuse to back off for fear of losing their grip like the British officer forced to relish his punishment in order to survive the ordeal of his own disenfranchisement and loneliness.
Spare the Rod?
Sadly, people even recruit the biblical reference to Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child to justify the administration of violence from the earliest age. We hear people using that one line from the bible as if it were sufficient to justify all sorts of punishment. Because if it’s okay to beat a child with a switch, it must be okay to bash the heads of those we oppose. We see evidence of this smashmouth mentality everywhere in society, especially in politics where politicians without conscience bark about the finer points of human values while trying to beat the piss out of their political adversaries.
Punishers and the punished
It’s a horrific cycle of punishers and the punished that we’ve created. Those who pull away or try to lend rational perspective to the issue of institutionalized violence are branded as ‘weak’ in their constitution or ‘too liberal’ in their parenting ands tastes in public media, sports and religion.
So we blithely pass gun laws that make it legal to pack weapons nearly everywhere we go. We root for sports that destroy the very lives of the athletes who play them and then wonder why those athletes cannot behave like saints in the cathedral of sports.
We’re all tied to the whipping post unless someone has the courage to stand up and say “Stop, that’s enough.”
Scars and forgiveness
Those of us who lived that reality in a very physical way know that the scars of punishment without rational foundation take a long time to heal. It takes real work and possibly the heaviest dose of forgiveness possible to work past the bitterness and anger that takes hold in the heart of those punished.
We also recognize those violent tendencies in others more readily than most. We refuse to vote for those with an angry bent and barely disguised desire for absolute control. Those are the most dangerous people of all. Those who refuse even to be questioned for the motivations behind their behavior, such as the NFL, the cigarette companies or the polluters of our rivers and streams. Politicians who war profiteer and angry talk show hosts who profit from fomenting dissent without providing solutions. The NRA with its All Guns At All Costs Philosophy, and the very rich who begrudge the working class even the respect for its labor.
These are the people who want you tied to the whipping post. Jesus Christ warned us that this was the real decay of society. It was not the so-called rabble of the streets whose sins harmed almost no one, and whose constitutions and orientations would come to be better understood in the true light of day, thanks to history, biology and genetics.
They are not the enemy here. They are not the ones tying the arms of the innocent to the whipping post. The lash you feel on your back is the force of authority without cause. That is the lesson of the modern conundrum. How to let the weak be heard, and not be afraid to listen.